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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Worship – The Heart of Who We Are
September, 19, 2013

In this space I recently completed a series on the Reformed understanding of what constitutes a “true church,” something the Reformers called the “notes” of the church. I pointed out that, for the Reformers and in our Confessions, the core marker of the church’s authenticity is not its brand name or its creed or its governance or its hierarchy, but its worship – the Word of God sincerely preached and heard, and the sacraments rightly administered.  Fast forward to the early 20th century, when Presbyterians adopted a catalog of the “Great Ends of the Church” that has been in our Book of Order ever since (F-1.0304). The Reformers spoke to the question, “What is the true church?” while 20th-century Presbyterians asked, “What does the true church do?”

In the 20th century, while our Book of Order retained the “Great Ends” through its many editions, it dropped the church’s essential “Notes” from its pages. It was a century of focusing more on the church’s mission than on its identity. Only with the major revision of the Book of Order adopted in 2011 with the new Form of Government did the Reformers’ “Notes of the Church” finally make it into our Book of Order (F-1.0303).

We children of the Reformation have often tended to be more concerned with what we do than with who we are. This is demonstrated in myriad ways – even in our very names. The designations “Orthodox” and “Catholic” are descriptors of who people are, while “Protestant” is rooted in what people do. The 20th century saw Protestantism becoming more activist than ever, whether undertaking “mission” primarily in terms of evangelism or of ministries of justice and mercy.

One looks in vain in Luther and Calvin for much talk about the church’s mission. Instead, they give far more attention to the church’s identity in terms of what we today would call “faith and order” issues – the church’s worship and teaching. It’s not that they discount the importance of mission, but they believe when a church is rightly ordered in its prayer and hearing of God’s word, it will inescapably engage in the work of Christ in the world. In their view, the church’s identity as a community of Word and Sacrament is what generates its missional activity.

This is why Calvin spent a great deal of time and effort in shaping the church’s liturgy in such a way that it could sustain the church despite being cut off from all the Roman resources on which it had long depended. Calvin would not recognize the caricature many paint of him as a man more concerned with the Christian doctrine and behavior than with the church’s worship.

The “missional church” movement of the past 20 years has stressed that the church’s identity and mission are inseparable – the church is God’s mission in the world. The Reformers might agree, if it were put something like this: The community of Word and Sacrament is God’s mission in the world. It lives not unto itself, but for the sake of the world. But make no mistake – its missionary life is constituted and nurtured first of all by its worship. Alas, I have been to many “missional church” events where worship was either virtually absent or merely a momentary pause on the way to the main event of talking about mission.

A church I served early in my ministry received new members in batches of a dozen or so, after they had completed a new members’ class. As their official welcome, they would be brought before the congregation at the end of a worship service, introduced by the session, and then everyone came forward to extend them the right hand of fellowship. One Sunday early in my ministry there the introduction of new members went something like this: This is Joe, a physician who has recently joined a local surgical practice. And please welcome Jane, a new professor of literature at the university. And here we have Henry, a chemist recently transferred here by his pharmaceutical company. Karen joins us as the new executive of our local United Way. Here is Maria, who has recently begun a doctoral program in church history. And finally we have Jerry, who (the elder making the introductions began to mumble at this point) tends people’s yards in Pleasant Valley. At that moment I resolved never to introduce new members to the church by how they earn a living. Our session had the best of intentions, but still they communicated that what matters most among us is not who we are, but what we do. In such an environment, it becomes nearly impossible to trust in the grace of God that is freely poured out on us with no regard for what we have done or what we deserve.

Who are we as the church of God? We are a community of people called first of all to worship God rightly. Divine worship is not just preliminary pleasantry we engage before we get down to the real business of being the church. Our liturgy both shapes and reflects who we are, which inevitably directs what we do. Over the coming weeks we will be considering how Reformed liturgy enacts the essence of who we are as God’s people. How we worship matters more than most of us ever imagine.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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